Soul Catcher: Java’s Fiery Prince Mangkunagara I, 1726-95 provides a number of new insights into the figure of Prince Mangkunagara I and at the same time it endorses and elaborates on the author’s previous arguments on Javanese mystic synthesis, and his arguments on the prevalent role of Islam in Javanese history. Prince Mangkunagara I is among the most well-known figures of eighteenth-century Java, especially for his acts of rebellion against Pakubuwono II and against the Dutch East India Company (VOC). In folklore he is depicted as ‘a fighter,’ a perception and attribute for which the Indonesian government granted him a title of national hero together with many others, including the rebellious Prince Dipanagara. Due to the contrasting relations of Prince Dipanagara and Prince Mangkunagara I with the Dutch authorities, the latter was able to establish a princedom: the Mangkunagaran dynasty. Additionally, he was among the three major local figures of the eighteenth century (the other two being Mangkubumi—later entitled Hamengkubuwono I—of Yogyakarta and Pakubuwono III of Surakarta), who were involved in the separation of the Mataram Kingdom into three dynasties.
Mangkunagara I has been known by a number of different names. These include Prince Adipati Pakunegara, Prince Suryakusuma, Mas Said, and Prince Sambĕr Nyawa (‘Soul Catcher’). The last of these names has been much quoted
in the folklore of contemporary Indonesia, and Ricklefs, a prominent historian of Java, has been drawn into the mystery of the prince’s intriguing nickname ever since his passionate study of Java’s history. In 2018, he was finally able to publish the most extensive biography of the prince. It provides very detailed accounts of important events, the situations surrounding wars and battles and the relationships between other figures and powers. With regard to the prince’s personal and literary activities, it deals with feelings and thoughts, and even his love life! It could not have been completed in such a splendid way without broad primary sources both from the Javanese (32 published and unpublished sources) and from the VOC (16 sources), and a number of reference works. Ricklefs uncovers a number of interesting facts, one of them being that the term ‘Soul Catcher’ was not created by Nicolaas Hartingh. It was the name of the battle flag that Mangkunagara created. Ricklefs found the prince to be ‘a littérateur as well as a soldier and pious Muslim—and, of course, a lover of beautiful women and of Javanese high arts such as wayang and gamelan’.
Soul Catcher reveals a religious transformation from the predominance of a type of Islam characterized by mystic synthesis to a more reformist type of Islam that appeared at the end of the eighteenth century in the Surakarta court, promoted by the crown prince who later became King Pakubuwono IV. This prince had shown strong signs of religious devotion that differed from mystic synthesis, and once he became king, he furthered his cause by promoting a culture that was anti-Dutch in nature. He replaced senior courtfigureswith religious zealots that later created a political as well as cultural threat to Surakarta, which also extended to other Javanese political realms and involved Mangkunagara I, Hamengkubuwono I, and the VOC. Although an alliance between the latter three succeeded in dismissing the king’s new favorites and sending them into exile, this type of reformist Islam became even more powerful from the middle of the nineteenth century with more dominating, orthopraxic brotherhoods (tarekat), namely Kadiriyah and Naqsabandiyah. This rich biography of Mangkunagara I provides historical background to reflect on the transformation of Javanese—as well as Indonesian—society in this twenty-first century.